Henry Shefflin: Why life as a club hurler can be disheartening
I used to think the inter-county game's squeeze on club activity was being exaggerated. Not any more
Early last February, not long after we had reconvened for pre-season training, the Ballyhale Shamrocks squad undertook a fitness test to establish what levels we were all at. Gavin Butler was 15th or 16th out of 25 that night.
On Tuesday night of last week we undertook the same fitness test. This time Gavin was first. It took a phenomenal effort from him to get in that condition in an effort to make the first team.
But on Monday night last Gavin suffered a terrible injury in a Byrne Cup semi-final against Clara, fracturing both his tibia and fibula. His season is over.
The following night Mayo County Board announced that a full round of club championship matches fixed for this weekend were to be shelved, three weeks out from an All-Ireland final.
Between Gavin's injury and the postponements in Mayo, it set me thinking about the worsening plight of the club GAA player.
I reference Gavin's injury because of the great sacrifices he made to get himself right for when he thought the Kilkenny senior championship would swing back into action for the last round of the league section before the first round proper.
But because of the county team's replay with Waterford, that round was pushed on another four weeks and the peak he strove for had to be cooled down again.
I accept that Gavin might well have picked up the same injury in a championship match or a training session, but my point is that, six and a half months on from when he and the rest of us first went through the gates to start our preparations, our club championship still had not hit the higher gears.
All that investment and energy getting himself right over such a long period of time, yet his season is over before it had really begun. I'm sure there are other Gavin Butlers across the country with similar stories to tell.
In Ballyhale, February was probably a late start given that our 2014 season ended on St Patrick's Day 2015.
I understand why Kilkenny would put back this round of club matches because of the replay. We're lucky to have one of the more stable club games programmes around, with the football championship completed so early in the year.
I appreciate what it must be like in the stronger dual counties. And we've had a county team manager who is so adamant about the need to release players back to their clubs regularly.
I can see where Mayo are coming from too. These players want to build momentum over a four-week period for the biggest game of their lives, get a head-start perhaps on the two teams playing this weekend.
I always felt three weeks was the right preparation for an All-Ireland; that's what worked for us.
You can't help feeling, though, that what happened in Mayo this week is further compelling evidence that the club and county season just can't sit side by side any more in the present format.
I'm in the midst of my first full season as a club player. Last year, after I retired from inter-county hurling, I spent some of the summer recovering from surgery to correct a few issues so I couldn't consider myself 'fully fledged'. Now I do.
The difference is far greater than I ever could have imagined.
The things you take for granted at inter-county level, like numbers at training, just don't exist for so much of the season.
You find yourself looking around the corner of the dressing-room door on training nights to see who might be in next to nudge towards a reasonable quota, almost willing them in. Head-counts become routine.
On the Tuesday night after the drawn game with Waterford we had 16 when we should have had 25. With the county players that would have been 30. But because the game was put off, the urgency dropped and the numbers dipped.
Don't me wrong, the Ballyhale boys are great to train - they wouldn't have won as much if they weren't. But even they sense when there is slack on the rope.
I know that if I have something on relating to work I'll get that out of the way in the knowledge that there won't be game for weeks.
We had six and seven at sessions earlier in the summer during that fallow period when the first couple of championship games in May are over and Kilkenny business comes sharply into focus.
I found it a novelty at first, enjoyable and relaxed. But when you're stretched for double figures more and more as exams, J1 visas and other travel arrangements kick in, that novelty wears off. The long absence of cutting-edge games really hurts as the season wears on.
I found myself at odds with the general theme of the discussion earlier this year in relation to the club game and how it has become so squeezed and marginalised.
I just didn't see it the same way. Now? I could never stress how much I enjoy playing for my club. Coming back in the week after an All-Ireland final was always like a new beginning. And we'd hit the ground running.
But I never stopped to consider the journey the other lads had been on for so much of the year. Frankly, it can be a disheartening experience and can sap the life out of you. There's another side to great days in Nowlan Park or Croke Park that just never hit home to me until this year.
I'm left wondering how my brother Paul and Bob Aylward, 37 now, stuck with it for so long. The lure of success was almost always there for us but how do other club players without those opportunities do it?
We'd start pre-season with great energy and there would always be a bit of flow to it once the National League was completed and a championship game or two appeared on the horizon. But then things go into cold storage and you're forced to drop it before peaking again much later in the summer.
Would club players be better off starting much later and using that time during the summer to spend with family and other interests?
Knowing what I know now, the imperative of getting through the inter-county programme quicker is greater than ever: two-week breaks between provincial games and All-Ireland quarter and semi-finals, three weeks to an All-Ireland final.
And yet at the risk of some contradiction I still maintain hurling's profile needs more inter-county championship hurling matches. I recently noted how Paraic Duffy's football proposal may be tailor-made for hurling.
Paraic has shown leadership on this issue but not enough stakeholders have been willing to follow. My view is that they must and seek to redraw the calendar to compact county and club seasons better.
Otherwise the life will continue to be sapped from the club player in those summer months. And I've seen enough pale faces.